A few months ago I noticed that there was a new wall mural in my local Starbucks in Century Park. I tend to be kind of focused when I go in there; I’m either working, or Marci and I are having coffee and reading a book together. I notice the people around me, but the other surroundings don’t seem to register. But here I was one day, sitting at my table by the wall, sipping coffee and working on a sermon. At some point I was sitting back in my seat, thinking about what I wanted to say next, and I suddenly noticed that there was a drawing of a man in work clothes and what looked like a sombrero, right beside my seat.
“That’s a pretty cool drawing!” I thought. And so I switched my attention to the wall, and I gradually noticed that it was just one part of a huge mural that covered the whole wall. There were fields and trees, ships and trucks, coffee bags and mugs and a whole bunch of other things. For a moment it was just a confusing mass of images; “What is it?” I thought. And then, suddenly, I caught a glimpse of the big picture. It was a depiction of the whole process of coffee making, from the fields where the beans were grown, to the moment the dark liquid was poured into my mug, with all the steps in between.
“But where’s the beginning?” I asked myself – because, you see, the picture wasn’t in a straight line. It was more like one of those giant snakes in the old ‘Snakes and Ladders’ game, bending around and turning back in on itself until the whole wall was covered – but not in an orderly fashion. It took another minute for me to identify the starting point, and then I could stand back, enjoy the whole picture, and follow the process from start to finish.
I think Christianity can sometimes seem a bit like that wall mural. When we first walk into a church, or when we first encounter Christian faith, it can seem like a confusing mass of ideas and images. Bread and wine, commandments and services, God and Jesus, helping the poor, loving your neighbour and trying to love your enemy, giving to support the church and asking for God’s help when you need it; so many ideas! Or maybe we think of all the stories in the Bible: Noah and his ark, Daniel and the lion’s den, Jonah and the whale, the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus on the Cross, Moses crossing the Red Sea with the Israelites and all that. What’s it all about? What’s the plot of the story? What’s the big picture, and what’s the starting point?
There are two things I want to share with you this morning, on this feast day of the Baptism of Jesus. Let me tell you what they are right from the start, and then we can explore them together. First, the big picture is the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God. Second, the starting point is baptism.
First, the big picture is the Kingdom of Heaven. To get this big picture we have to go back a few verses from our gospel for today. Matthew chapter three starts with the story of John the Baptist and what he was up to, proclaiming God’s message and baptizing people in the river Jordan. From there we go on to read about Jesus coming down to join John’s movement and being baptized by him, which was our gospel story for today. But at the beginning of chapter three we read these words:
‘In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”’ (Matthew 3:2).
Let’s be clear that when Matthew uses the language of ‘the kingdom of heaven’, he’s not talking about ‘dying and going to heaven’. ‘Kingdom of heaven’ is a phrase Matthew uses when Mark and Luke say ‘Kingdom of God’, but all three writers mean exactly the same thing: God’s power coming into this world, to set wrongs right, to fix broken things, to heal wounded things, to end injustice, and to restore all things to the way he originally intended. It wasn’t just about saving souls; it was about fixing a broken world.
Let me give you an example of what Matthew’s Jewish hearers would have thought about when they heard John’s message. Listen to these words from Isaiah:
‘In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths”. For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!’ (Isaiah 2:2-5).
That’s the Kingdom of Heaven: God working in the world, inviting all people to come to him and learn the ways of justice and peace. And the result is the healing of the world.
When I ask people what they think the central message of Jesus was, they often say “Love thy neighbour” – and of course it’s true that Jesus taught us to love one another. But the thing that got him up in the morning, the thing that fired him up and motivated him to keep on with his mission of preaching and healing, was the Kingdom of God. Almost all of his parables are about the Kingdom: it’s like a treasure hidden in a field, he said, or like a tiny seed that you plant in the ground that grows up to be the largest of plants, or like some yeast that a woman took and mixed in with flour until all of it was leavened. The prayer he taught his disciples to pray was “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), and he told us that we should “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). Truly, the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, was right at the heart of Jesus’ message.
And right at the heart of the kingdom message was the experience of forgiveness and reconciliation. God comes among us in Jesus, and what do we do? More to the point, what do our best and our brightest do – our political leaders, our priests and religious teachers? They find God a threat to their power – as we all do. Why does God have to interfere so much? Why can’t he mind his own business? And so, like them, we reject him, we mock him, we whip him, we nail him to a cross and we leave him there to die. Maybe then he’ll leave us alone.
Any self-respecting god from the ancient world would have known how to respond to an act like that. Zeus would have scorched the earth with thunderbolts. Thor and Odin would have wiped out their enemies in a river of blood. But what about this God who came to us in Jesus? What does he do? He does exactly what he had taught his disciples to do: love their enemies and pray for those who hate them. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This is how reconciliation begins: someone decides not to strike back, but to respond with forgiveness instead. And in Jesus, God decides to be that someone. In Jesus, God reaches out and offers forgiveness to the whole world.
In Matthew 24:14 Jesus calls his message ‘the good news of the kingdom’. It’s good news because it tells us that God has not given up on this world; that God intends to keep on working until the whole world reflects his original vision of justice and compassion and peace. And it’s also good news because everyone is invited, no matter who they are and what they’ve done; everyone can experience this reconciliation with God. You can be forgiven, and you can be welcomed into this movement of nonviolent revolution by which God is at work transforming the whole world. You can know God as your Father and the people of Jesus as your sisters and brothers. No one is left out unless they choose to count themselves out. Everyone is invited to come in.
This is the big picture. Now, how do we come in? What’s the starting point? The starting point is baptism.
But it sometimes seems like such a strange starting point! It seemed strange to John the Baptist that Jesus should ask for it; after all, Jesus was the Messiah, the one John had been talking about:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).
Imagine how great this person must be! John could take his hearers and plunge them into the Jordan River in the act of baptism, but the one who was coming could do a far greater thing: he could take people and plunge them into the power of God’s Holy Spirit, so that the Holy Spirit would fill them and surround them and empower them to do the will of God. How could someone like that need water baptism from John? ‘“I need to be baptized by you”, he said, “and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”’ – or, as the New Living Translation helpfully puts it, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires” (vv.14-15).
This is counter-intuitive. Surely if we’re looking for the starting point in God’s kingdom, it should be something we do – giving away all our money to the poor, or reading the Bible and praying, or helping someone beside the road who’s been beaten up (like the Good Samaritan did). All these are good things, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing them. But they aren’t the way we start as apprentices, or disciples, of Jesus. Jesus himself said to his followers, “Go therefore and make all nations my disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). In other words, the way you become a disciple is by being baptized; after that, you start learning to put the teaching of Jesus into practice. As Jesus said to Peter at the last supper, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8).
Baptism is something God does for us. It isn’t something we do for ourselves. This is symbolized by the fact that in the New Testament no one baptizes themselves. Everyone is baptized by someone else. Baptism is a sign of being washed from sin and evil. It’s a sign of being filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit. It’s a sign of adoption into the family of God; as God says after Jesus is baptized, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Notice that he says this before Jesus does any ministry. Jesus has yet to heal a single sick person, preach a single sermon or cast out a single unclean spirit. In other words, this saying comes to Jesus as a gift of the Father’s love. “You’re my boy, and I’m proud of you”.
What a wonderful thing for a child to hear their father say! You and I need to receive that gift too, because words of love like that are a rarity in our world. And most of them are based on achievement: we do a good job, and we get praised for it. But the love of God for us isn’t based on our achievement; it’s based on nothing but his own mercy and grace.
So the big picture is the Kingdom of Heaven: God healing the world of evil and sin and restoring it to his original intention. That’s what the work of Jesus is all about. And the starting point for those who want to be a part of that is baptism; it’s how we become disciples of Jesus. Of course, those of us who were baptized as babies have to make our own decision about that, as we get older and come to grasp for ourselves what it is that Jesus is up to. We all have come to the point where our parents’ faith becomes our faith – not something second-hand, but something we experience for ourselves. But it’s still not based on our achievement; it’s based on God’s steadfast love for us.
It needs to be said, of course, that baptism is the starting point – not the ending point! Some people argue against infant baptism because they’ve seen too many cases where it is the ending point: parents bring children to church to be baptized, but then make no effort to continue to be part of the community of followers of Jesus. They don’t teach their kids about the gospel or help them grow a faith of their own. They’ve been baptized, and that’s the end of it.
We’ve already seen that that’s not what Jesus had in mind. Jesus told his disciples not only to ‘baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, but then to go on to ‘teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you’. We baptized Christians commit ourselves to a life of discipleship: learning to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our daily lives. This is how we ‘strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33). And we can’t do this alone. Jesus never called people to follow him alone; he called them to be part of a community of disciples. That’s what the church is meant to be: a community of people learning together how to follow Jesus.
So the big picture is the work of the Kingdom of God in the world, and the starting place for us is baptism. Let me close with a few brief words of further application.
First, many of us Christians need a bigger perspective. We’ve lost our sense of what Christianity is all about. We’ve gotten caught up in little details: whether we should use old hymns or modern worship songs, or whether or not ministers should wear robes, or whether or not women should preside at Holy Communion, or whether churches that don’t have bishops are real churches – none of them subjects on which Jesus seems to have had an opinion. We very much need to remind ourselves of the big picture: The Kingdom of God. And one way of focusing this vision is to ask ourselves: if God were to answer our prayer “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” what would that look like? What would be different in our lives, and in the world around us? When we can imagine an answer to that question, we can then learn to live into it ourselves, and work toward it in the world.
Second, we need to pay attention to the right voices. I suspect that many of you here today have heard negative messages all your life. You’ve been told that you don’t fit in. You’ve been told that you’re the wrong body shape. You’ve been told that your work doesn’t measure up. You’ve been told that you’re a bad person. You’ve been told that it’s your fault, that you’re to blame, that you’re the guilty one. You’ve been told that you’re not important enough for people to care about. And so the list it goes on.
What I want to say is that the most important thing, the thing we should really be paying attention to, is what God says about us. In Jesus’ baptism, God said “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). And that’s what he says to you in your baptism as well. I really like the way Mark phrases it in his version of this story: it’s addressed to Jesus in the second person. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11).
Imagine the power of hearing God say that to you! If you really believe it – if you believe that’s what God says to you in your baptism – then you can walk out of this building today with your head held high. You won’t need to worry about what other people say about you. You won’t need to define yourselves by other people’s opinions of you. You’ll know, deep down inside, that this is the most fundamental truth about you: you are a child of God, adopted into God’s family, gifted with the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. None of this is earned. None of it needs to be earned. It doesn’t come to you as a reward; it comes to you as a gift of God’s grace – not because you are lovable, but because God is love.
When you know that, you can go from this place today in the strength of God’s love, to strive first for God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, knowing that nothing in all of heaven and earth can separate you from God’s love. May it be so for you and me, brothers and sisters, today and every day. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.